Al Lewis coached Jonathan Harris through this completely improvised scene on Lost in Space
Watch Al Lewis give a masterclass in TV improv.
It sounds like a dream come true: An episode of Lost in Space where Dr. Smith encounters a wizard able to conjure a spaceship that can fly him home. It could've meant the end of the series – if it weren't for seeing Al Lewis cast as that wizard. To fans of the comedic actor, it was a clear signal something was up and mischief was to be expected.
The 1967 episode was called "Rocket to Earth," and that wizard was called Zalto, played by Lewis, whose TV work began in the 1950s and led to starring roles on Sixties hits like Car 54, Where Are You? and The Munsters. He brought just as much delicious character work to his villainous Zalto, a bearded wizard not to be trusted, flashing a wicked grin beneath his pointy green hat.
It was the only time we saw Lewis on Lost in Space, but in his brief appearance, the experienced performer told the Archive of American Television that he actually left his mark on the show when he gave the actor behind the series' central frenemy Dr. Smith an indispensable lesson in improv, saying he told the series star at the time when an unexpected request came in to improvise a scene, "Don’t panic, Jonathan, just change the situation."
Lewis remembered they were deep into filming the episode when the director Don Richardson approached him in a rather odd way:
Don Richardson: "Al, we have a problem."
Al Lewis: "Why is it more than singular? What do you mean 'we' have a problem? You mean you have a problem. Why is it plural, 'we'”?
DR: "Well, we’re about 3-4 minutes short."
AL: "So, we call up a writer."
DR: "C’mon, Al, that guy will cost me $5,000."
AL: "Don, what do you want from me?"
What he wanted was for Lewis to come up with a way to add to a scene to fill the dead air.
Luckily, Lewis got on board, saying this was typical of variety shows he'd done in theaters in his early days as an actor, "It comes from having had to do it. There’s nothing stronger than the experiential.” However, according to Lewis, Harris was less at ease with the idea. "Jonathan Harris, I love him… a great guy, wonderful guy. I said, 'Jonathan, come here. Don says they’re short 3-4 minutes… here’s what we’ll do….' That’s where background comes in.”
Lewis then went on to narrate the scene as you can see it in the clip above. He said the performance you are watching is such a well-known exercise that it has a name, The Hesitation Walk. In the interview, he described the first time he used the device in a performance as a young boy approaching a door he's not quite ready to enter, saying:
"... he hasn’t got the gumption to open the door. So he comes to the door and then he comes back. We call it The Hesitation Walk, Jonathan. Here’s the scene: I’m going to walk you up the plank into the rocketship. That’s in the script, and the rocketship takes off and it blows up and you get killed and I became whatever, the winner. Very simple. Don’t worry, Jonathan, there’s no dead air with me. Very simple, Just listen and respond. Forget paper.”
Lewis continued, giving a masterclass in his interview on how he conveyed the improv technique to an experienced actor like Harris, while cleverly filling the time his director needed to wrap the episode: “The camera will be on the back of your head, and everybody will think you are thinking. Count 4: 1… 2… 3… 4… not out loud, Jonathan, then turn around, walk back down, and say, ‘Wait!’ Say whatever you want to say. I’ll pick it up.”
In the scene, it's hilarious to watch these skilled comedic actors working loosely off one another, and it's as successful as Lewis predicted. Lewis said, “That’s how we got 3-4 minutes. Nobody knew that that wasn’t in the script… It comes from having had to do it. There’s nothing stronger than the experiential.”